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How Trade Shows Are Surviving COVID

Face to face trade shows and conferences have taken a hit during the pandemic. But step by step, live events are staging a comeback

What a difference a pandemic makes. Trade shows and conferences, once a staple of corporate America, where new products and services were presented and face to face connections made, are undergoing a transformation, driven by COVID-19.

Comparing my own trade show experiences from the start of the pandemic to the ones today can put some context around the profound impact this global crisis has had on the trade show industry.

In February 2020, as the coronavirus was spreading through China and making its way to the rest of the world, I attended two trade shows on two different continents: The Luxepack/Makeup LA show in Los Angeles, followed by the Travel Trade Show in London.

I remember the Los Angeles event was a little “weird” as none of our Asian counterparts were in attendance. However, we were still unmasked, shaking hands, hugging, kissing on the cheek and anything but “social distancing” at the time. 

This was the typical “bleisure” trip for my wife and me, escaping the New Jersey winter for almost two weeks in sunny California. We dined out with friends in packed restaurants, hung out in a few bars in Newport Beach, went on a whale watching trip on a crowded sight-seeing boat, and generally had a great time.

After a quick stop back in New Jersey, I was off to Europe for two more trade shows and some business meetings with partners. On this trip, things started to change. The first show in London was busy. People were still shaking hands, hugging, etc. No masks anywhere to be seen.

But there was a ‘buzz’ through the exhibit halls that the ITB show in Berlin the following week might be canceled. Sure enough, within hours the Berlin show folded and we started to rebook our travel home.

At the time it looked like COVID-19 was going to shut the world down for a little bit. Two or three months to get a handle on this virus would be annoying, but it was manageable. 

Despite the cancellation, I flew on to Germany to meet with two different partners. We had meals out, toured factories, talked business strategy and got to know each other better in face to face meetings that were the pre-pandemic norm. After that, I took a flight home on March 6.

This flight was a little odd as I was one of only nine passengers occupying the 41 seats available in first class. Although I didn’t do a head count in the economy cabin, I think there were fewer than 100 people on the plane that would normally seat 300-plus. We still did not wear masks or social distant, but little did I know things would change so fast – and for so long.

Live & In Person – Again

Last month, I attended a trade show for the first time since February, and while it was not quite the same, I do believe there were hopeful signs for getting back to live events akin to what we had in the past. As Marriott’s CEO Tony Capuano said in our Business Traveler interview recently, “In selected markets groups have come back, are increasingly confident.”

Without going into too much detail about the show itself (Cosmoprof USA in Las Vegas), I will say it was nice to attend in a trade show again. Attendance was a lot smaller. The large companies – both suppliers and buyers in the industry – did not send anyone to attend. The exhibit hall had only about 20 to 25 percent of the exhibitors compared to the one in 2019.

However the small entrepreneurial businesses were out in force, and in-person meetings were taking place. Business was moving along and new relationships, new ideas, new innovations were discussed in a way you really can only do face to face (sorry Zoom). 

At the time, Las Vegas was requiring masks for everyone inside (except when eating, drinking or smoking) and the compliance from what I saw was over 90 percent. While the mask thing was “annoying” to me, a vaccinated person, I did comply.

I see myself as a cautious individual, but I’m not fearful to the point I won’t travel or go out to eat or interact with other people. For the record, I put a mask on when I go to a Walmart – but then, I may keep doing that forever!

Getting back to the trade show, this was beneficial for me personally and from what I heard also beneficial for many who attended. I made a lot of great new relationships and already have enough business opportunities that more than justified the cost of my expenses. 

So what started out as 12 to 18 weeks has turned into 18 months, and the end is not yet in sight. We’re now adjusting to masks, vaccines, hand sanitizer, hand washing (which isn’t a bad idea, by the way), social distancing and so many more “new normal” ideas.

We watched sporting events without fans. We had smaller celebrations of birth, weddings and, sadly, too many funerals. I certainly know that I never would have predicted what we’ve been through over these past year and a half, and I still don’t have a good idea of what we will go through over the next year-plus. There have been so many “waves” or “variants” and “returns to normal” only to have things get pulled back, and reset that I will not predict the future!

I do not feel I put myself or my family at any “additional risks” above what I would have going to Walmart and the grocery store and out to dinner and to church and all the other things we do each week. I fully believe that those people who are out traveling, while still exercising some care, will come out of this faster and even get ahead of those who remain more cautious (dare I say, fearful?) and don’t travel. 

Now for anyone who has underlying conditions or family members who do, I fully understand your concerns and support your decisions to protect yourself and your loved ones. I would – and do – the same.

However, I do hope for those who might be “on the fence” or are “wondering what it’s like” that you take the plunge and get back out there. I for one will choose to “die living,” rather than “die staying at home fearful of dying in the world.”

Jerry Ruud

Managing Director of Business Travel USA

CEO of Grateful Media Group Inc

Founder of Grateful Packaging LLC

Managing Director / COO of AP Deauville LLC